Imagine growing your ear near your wrist! A Team of doctors in John Hopkins have done it!
Sherrie Walter is a 42 year old retail sales manager from Bel Air, Maryland. She had a scab in her ear four years ago. Considering it a minor sore she left it unattended. She developed a bad habit of scratching and breaking it. When it was not at all healing, she assumed that her constant rubbing have been the cause. Later she was prescribed antibiotics, but after 8 months, it still did not heal. She finally had an appointment with a dermatologist. Along with her mother, she was sitting in the doctor’s chamber having her ear checked, then in less than 5 minutes; the doctor affirmed it was skin cancer. The news shocked her, she felt lost at that moment.
1 Initial diagnosis of skin cancer
She was diagnosed with ‘Basal cell carcinoma’, a very common and widely spread kind of skin cancer in the Unites States. Caused by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays, it usually affects the face and neck regions. Unlike some basal cell carcinomas which grow slowly, this turned out to be very aggressive. She was hoping that the sore could be just cut away to be healed. But she learnt from doctors that it was not just the superficial layer but 7 layers of skin that had to be cut to cure it from the root. The treatment started in 2008 with innumerable radiation therapies and biopsies. But the intensive treatment did not help; she found blood in her left ear canal soon again, sure that cancer was resurfacing. The disease spread to the skull and the salivary glands which needed immediate medical attention. The neck, lymph, head and skull tissues would have to be removed to eradicate the problem. It was a situation of complete chaos and mental agony. She was sceptical of this difficult surgery.
2 16 hour surgery and growing a new ear
She was mentally prepared for the surgery which was the last option to save her life. The surgery took 16 hours by an expert team of doctors at John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore led by Dr Byrne. They had to remove her ear canal, ear drum and also parts of her skull, neck and lymph node tissue. The surgery was successful, but it was now a problem to reconstruct her lost ear. She was given two options by Dr Byrne to gain her ear back. One was the prosthetic option. A plastic ear will be attached with clips to a titanium rod which would be supported by the skull bone through another surgery. But in her case as the skull bone was removed, this kind of reconstruction will not be easy. She would have to deal with tape and glue which would be inconvenient and painful so Doctor Byrne reiterated .There was other option he had explained, growing a new ear through an experimental procedure, which she would be the first one to ever undergo in. She was happy that there was another option and chose it however incomprehensible it may have sounded.
3 A new procedure of growing a new ear elsewhere in the body
Dr Patrick Byrne, associate professor in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, at the ‘Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’, had a rough sketch of this procedure in his mind for some time and was waiting to try it on a suitable patient. Sherrie was told that it was a lengthy procedure of two years. It was a complicated procedure which would be carried out for the first time in the entire continent of USA. Sherrie demonstrated immense courage and patience throughout the surgery and made it a success.
To begin with, doctors used saline to expand the skin around the arms which in itself would not stretch very much. Using cartilage from her rib, an ear was constructed carving out a perfect shape. After two weeks, it was inserted near the wrist for the skin to grow into the ear. It stayed there for four months. Sherrie felt like she was a part of science fiction scene, she did not know she was creating history!
4 Strength and support from family and friends
She is a mother of two kids and needed to go back to a functional life. Husband Damien was her anchor and support. They both cracked jokes to make the situation bearable and cheerful. It was a difficult situation to cope with, a mental battle rather than a physical one. In times when her childrens are difficult to manage, she would try a bit of humor and show her new ear tucked in her wrist, saying she could not hear anything. Ear construction is usually done with the skin from the ear and neck regions, but in her case as most of those were already removed, this procedure had to be adopted. But Sherrie Walter’s positive attitude helped the doctors try these new techniques on her.
5 A ray of hope for all cancer patients
Finally her ear was taken out from her wrist after four long months and was reattached to her head. The process in its entirety took 20 months. After re-attachment, Dr. Byrne is now trying to match the right ear with the left one with best of cosmetic surgery. He cut the skin below the ear to make it look similar to a lobe. The new ear will last several years, says her husband Damian with a sigh of relief. It is a breakthrough surgery of these recent times. It is a ray of hope for all cancer survivors, medical science is advancing at breakneck speed and is producing cure for these incurable diseases. Just like Sherrie Walter, everyone should believe in possibilities and be courageous enough to explore them. Sherrie says it should be a prerogative to get every longstanding sore checked, and of course using sunscreen may not be that bad just for safety’s sake.